The American War Bride Experience

GI Brides of World War II

GI BRIDES: Gold Diggers or Overcomers?

The daughter of a War Bride speaking of her mother.

She was one of 11 (children) so to move to an unknown country to live with complete strangers was a huge step.

She was only 17 when she came over to the US. A very frightening thing for a girl that age, but that is what love does to you.

Not everybody was happy when Doreen fell in love with her GI Joe. The couple in question might have been walking on cloud nine, but others could see only storm clouds on the horizon. The United States Military was not keen on the doughboys becoming involved with and distracted by the local ladies. Uncle Sam was concerned that naive American soldiers, sailors and airmen might be taken in by scheming British Gold-diggers seeking to relieve them of their plentiful dollars. (American servicemen earned a great deal more than their British equivalents.) So, for a time it was official policy to oppose such liaisons.

There was opposition in the home front, too. From folk who thought that nice girls didn’t go with Yanks. And there was more than one colourful character that captured the heart of a young Yank far from home! Opposition from parents who were resistant to the idea of their often very young daughters getting hitched to Americans, who were here today and might be gone tomorrow. A young woman often had to work hard to bring her strict dad around to her way of thinking. Maybe it was Father-meeting-Yank that settled the issue as mutual respect was earned. However, it is clear that sometimes the fears of mothers and fathers regarding their daughters were realised when things did not work out as the couple had hoped. Of course, that happens when a gal marries the boy in the next street, but if things go wrong when she is over 3,000 [miles] from mum and home.

In 1945 after the war in Europe was over the difficulties for the War Brides continued. Many husbands were shipped straight from continental Europe to the States, although some were reunited in the United Kingdom with their wives and were able to cross the Atlantic together. However, the vast majority of the Brides would have to make the journey to their new husbands, new homes and new country, in the company of other Brides. Uncle Sam did decide in late 1945 to make provision for this to happen, so that the next year saw a floating Magic Carpet taking thousands of young wives and their babies and toddlers across the Pond. The Carpet might be a Queen, such as the Mary, or it might be a Liberty ship or a former US Army Transport. Appropriately, perhaps, most brides went to the States on the same sort of transport as had brought their husbands-to-be over in the first place. A few had the questionable privilege of flying the Atlantic, but that sounds like rank talking!

Before leaving the country GI Brides faced the ordeal of saying Goodbye to their folks at the train station or the dockside in the knowledge that they might never see them again. Sadly, for some that was to be the case. A transit camp at Tidworth on Salisbury Plain was established with its indignities, where some of their husbands might well have been stationed before going to France. Here the Brides were to undergo the inspections, jabs and, of course, the forms to fill in. The handing over of the British identity pass began the process of Americanisation. By way of compensation there was the Post Exchange (PX) with its cornucopia of goods to purchase items generally unavailable in the UK, and an abundance of food at meal times.

So it was that the young War Bride – typically 17, 18 years of age was faced with many obstacles to cross before she was back with her husband. At every stage there were a few, sadly, who gave up the struggle.

The crossing of the Atlantic was a variable experience. Not just the vessel varied, from liner to transport, but the weather. Sometimes calm, sometimes stormy. Some women coped better than others; but for many, who probably never previously sailed on anything bigger than a rowing boat on the municipal lake, there were the miseries of sea-sickness. Apart from the physical discomforts, for some there were disturbing matters of the heart. Questions: Had she made the right decision? Would her husband be there when she arrived? Would he send for her to travel on to her final destination, which could be the other side of the country? How would they get on having been apart for many months, especially as they may have hardly known each other before going down the aisle? It was truly a journey into the unknown. Would his family accept her into its bosom? What about his mother and her reaction to her new unknown daughter-in-law? How would she cope with being so far from her family? Dare she wonder whether she would ever get to see home again?

For some it did not work out. Her man was not there. Word was sent that she was not wanted. Who can imagine the feelings of despair at such rejection? How was she to get back to the UK? Thankfully Uncle Sam seems to have thought of that as the US government paid for returns. But how would she face the folk who had sagely said, It will never work? Perhaps it was for the best to find out at that stage that a mistake had been made. Some women realised soon enough that things were not going to work out, as one writes, I walked into HELL and they had children to think of by the time they were able to extricate themselves from an unhappy marriage. However, it is suggested that fewer GI bride marriages failed than others of that era. Only a comprehensive survey could prove that conclusively, but it seems likely.

But for most it was to be a joyful experience of reunion (and relief after such a long journey from door to door.) Either at the dockside or at the railroad station the tears would flow and the hugs would bind couples once again. And if GI Joe's family gave its seal of approval to the new arrival, then so much the better. But this was only the start. The process of settling in and settling down now began in earnest.

Over the initial hurdles, the War Bride would settle down to a life of domesticity as, hopefully, her husband, as was then the norm, went to work to support her and the children, those born overseas and those made in the USA. Was this a somewhat isolated life for young girls in a foreign country? For whatever similarities there were, (and are) between the United Kingdom and the United States, there were profound differences, in language, culture, living styles and living standards. And her husband might be away all day leaving her to cope alone, with a little help from her in-laws. The transition for some Brides was not just from country to country but from country-life to city life or vice versa. Or from small-family living to big-family living. These, of course, are the challenges that face most couples getting married but they were extra ones for these “settlers.

One of the big drawbacks for these newly married couples, due to a housing shortage after the war, was not having a place of their own. Living with the in-laws was virtually inevitable. If the mother-in-law took against the daughter-in-law then there was certainly trouble ahead! And especially if the former GI was used to jumping to attention when his mother spoke! Doreen and Beryl were a long way from their friends and family, their natural supporters in times of crisis. Some Brides were blessed to have English friends in the vicinity and could count on them. But most of them seem to have been geographically isolated as they were scattered to the far corners of continental USA. No wonder that British women in America would seek out their country-sisters and that eventually the various War Bride Clubs came into being. Was it easier for those who settled on or near the eastern seaboard of the States, as compared with those who went to live in the landlocked hills?

A number of enterprising builders such as Mr William Levitt came to the rescue of the young couples. Rows of cheerful little homes sprouted on large tracts of land all over the States. At last, easily affordable homes were available. Escape from mother-in-law was now possible, if desirable! British Brides now discovered that so many of the good things of life for their new homes could be purchased on the never, never, something often frowned on back home in England.

Homesickness was a common complaint. However happy they might be in their new homes and with their new families, it did not prevent them all missing Mum and Dad and the folks back home, and their British roots. Letters and newspapers from home helped, sent out by loving parents concerned for their daughters. Sometimes the newspapers contained stories about the Brides themselves.

It was to be a few years before that important first home visit could be made. Not only did women want to see their folks again, but also grandchildren needed to meet their maternal grandparents. Life was busy and money was short. For some it would be the 50's before that flight or cruise home could be afforded. Returning to the UK could present fresh challenges to the returnee. It was hard for one bride to leave behind in England her sick and dying father so the stay dragged and became a very stressful experience. Happily her marriage survived. Returning to the UK helped some realise that the USA really was their home. Was this, in part, because Great Britain was taking some time to recover from WW2? Rationing did not end until 1954. On the other hand, many folk in the US were enjoying a post war boom. Gadgets of all sorts were gathering in their homes and kitchens. Britain was lagging behind and it must have been difficult for visitors to think of life without the appliances common place back home. It was probably not until the 70's that a visitor over here would have found all things she was used to over there.

There was some post-war traffic between the Old World and the New World of a more permanent nature. Some widowed or divorced brides returned to the land of their birth. In the other direction went some of the parents of the brides who for various reasons followed their daughters and settled in the US. Of course, with the advent of easier and cheaper travel the homesick have been able to visit more often. And the children and the grandchildren of the WW2 Brides have crossed the Pond maintaining the links first established in churches all over UK during and after the war.

The challenge remains of being betwixt and between. Women who are split in their loyalties and their emotions, and feel pulled in two directions. One put it in a positive way; I have two countries I can call home. Another, I feel Welsh-American.

The vast majority of the Brides were certainly brave to do what they did. And do it for love they surely did. A few were quickly disappointed. Some found the struggle too much and gave up after years of trying to make things work. Most persevered and lasted the course and many are still happily married to their GI Joe. They are the Overcomers.

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